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D: Maryam Keshavarz / 109m

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Edie Falco, Matt Bomer, Lola Kirke, Julian Morris, Sheila Vand, Adepero Oduye, Patrick Breen, Amir Malaklou, Damian Young

Helen Sterling (Sarandon) is an ER nurse whose son, Andrew (Morris), is a journalist who covers war zones. When he’s kidnapped by terrorists, Helen approaches the FBI for help, but their lack of urgency in dealing with Andrew’s abduction causes Helen to become frustrated and angry at how long it’s taking to get him back. A fleeting visit from a friend of Andrew’s, Sheila (Vand), prompts Helen into exploring different options than the ones “official channels” want her to pursue. She is given the number of Charlotte (Falco), someone else whose son was abducted, and who got him back with the help of the Viper Club. Helen learns that the Viper Club lobbies individuals to help with ransom payments, and has a network of contacts that can allow those payments to reach the right destinations (Helen has been repeatedly advised that paying terrorists, under any circumstances, is a criminal offence). When she receives a message from the terrorists asking for $20 million for Andrew’s safe return, and both the FBI and the State Department show no further sense of urgency, Helen decides to ask the Viper Club for their help…

A straightforward “issue” movie that tries to deal sincerely with the efforts of one lone mother to have her kidnapped son returned to her safely and well, Viper Club wears its sincerity and seriousness like a badge of honour, and though it tries hard – sometimes too hard – it often finds itself mired under a welter of good intentions. At its heart is another tremendous performance from Sarandon (who seems drawn to these kinds of roles and stories), but although her portrayal of Helen is nuanced and intelligently handled, and passionate too, it’s in service to a screenplay by director Keshavarz and Jonathan Mastro that doesn’t live up to its star’s efforts. Instead of this being a movie about the determination of a mother to rescue her son no matter what, there are too many stretches in the movie where that story is held up while the narrative explores Helen’s work life, and in particular, the case of a young car accident victim who’s in a coma, and the victim’s mother (Kirke). This leads the overall story nowhere (except occasionally into soap opera land), and though it highlights Helen’s compassionate nature and willingness to bend the rules, we already know this through the main thrust of the material.

Away from the ER, the movie is on firmer ground, but there are still problems to be overcome. It’s no surprise to find the FBI and the State Department represented as bureaucratic suits who believe there should be only one way of dealing with kidnappings by terrorists: their way. And Helen is kept in the dark about a lot of things that the Viper Club are doing on her behalf, more so for dramatic purposes than for any logical reasons (she’s treated quite patronisingly when there’s no need for it). Secondary characters such as Falco’s facilitator, and Bomer’s journalist-cum-Viper Club liaison officer, Sam, have a place in the narrative but it’s largely expositional, while flashbacks to when Andrew was last home and when he was a child are meant to be poignant, but only achieve this on a superficial level. Making only her second feature, Keshavarz has aimed high with her story and been blessed by obtaining Sarandon’s services, but there’s a pervading sense that she hasn’t worked out fully what she’s trying to say – or if she has, then she hasn’t worked out the best way of getting that message across. Some individual scenes work well in themselves and there’s a spirited energy to others that also helps, but this is a patchwork movie that doesn’t do itself – or its main character – the justice it needs.

Rating: 5/10 – anchored and improved by a powerful performance by Sarandon, Viper Club is another movie where the sum of its parts adds up to less than what was needed; well intentioned, and with a pertinent story to tell in today’s troubled times, it’s a shame that the focus shifts so often, and in ways that makes it very diffcult for the movie to make up all the ground that it loses by doing so.